Following a 31-17 victory at home over Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten), Northwestern (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) will turn the calendars to the final month of the regular season with a chance to win the Big Ten West Division for the first time. The division is now officially in their control with just three Big Ten games remaining on the schedule.
Clayton Thorson struggled in the passing game at times but managed to do enough damage on the ground with two rushing touchdowns and a 27-yard run to help set up a score in the third quarter as he escaped from under pressure closing in on him to take advantage of a wide open right side of the field. It was the kind of gritty performance that bodes well for Northwestern, especially against a Wisconsin team playing without starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook and on a day where the fumble issues of Jonathan Taylor led to some self-inflicted wounds for the Badgers.
With Hornibrook out of the game due to not being medically cleared out of concussion protocol, Jack Coan made his first career start for the Badgers and was rarely asked to make too much happen through the air. Wisconsin relied on their running game with Taylor, Garrett Groshek and Alec Ingold leading the attack. But northwestern’s defense was ready for the challenge and played well at home to preventing Wisconsin from gaining an edge. If anything, Northwestern’s own running game leveled the playing field with Isaiah Bowser continuing to fuel the Wildcat’ running game, with Thorson complimenting the effort.
Northwestern took a 24-10 lead into the fourth quarter and essentially put the finishing touch on the win shortly after Coan fumbled the football deep in the Wisconsin end early in the fourth quarter. The fumble recovery by Northwestern, the third of the day, was followed by a touchdown run by Bowser to build a 21-point lead.
The win moves Northwestern to 5-1 in the Big Ten West, which now includes head-to-head wins against Purdue and Wisconsin. Having played one more conference game than the rest of the division, the Wildcats will own no less than a half-game lead in the division after all games have been played on Saturday (Purdue was playing at Michigan State at the same time and Iowa was kicking off against Penn State later in the afternoon). Northwestern will host Notre Dame next week (looking to play spoiler against the Irish?) but the next Big Ten test for the Wildcats will come in two weeks on the road at Iowa. That game should be of much significance, as a win could potentially put Northwestern one giant step closer to playing in the Big Ten championship game at the end of the season. Northwestern has the road game at Iowa and then a road trip to Minnesota and a home game against Illinois to wrap up the regular season and the Big Ten schedule. It may all come down to what happens in that Iowa game for Northwestern.
Wisconsin, the runaway favorite in the Big Ten West and picked to win the Big Ten and play in the playoff by some in the preseason, now needs a good amount of help if the Badgers are going to make a third straight trip to the Big Ten championship game. At 3-2 in the Big Ten, Wisconsin will look for a rebound win next week at home against Rutgers before two straight road games at Penn State and Purdue. But Wisconsin now needs to finish ahead of Northwestern in the standings to avoid losing out on a head-to-head tiebreaker. That may be wishful thinking at this point.